In what was an extremely sensational election year, one of the less exciting items on my election ballot was whether to term limit our county commissioners. I voted no; I’m generally against term limits because it seems odd to yank someone out of a job just as they start to figure out what they’re doing. Lately, as I plunge headlong into my 40s, I’m realizing how much life itself is frustratingly term limited. There seems to be so much for us to do – a lot of crap in the world that need attending to, not much time to do anything about it.
And just as we start to figure out what we’re doing, just as we begin to understand how to be somewhat effective in doing what we can do, to the best of our abilities, to make the world a slightly better place… sorry, our term is up. Time to make room for younger folks who will hopefully at least build upon what we’ve done, but just as likely will do their own thing and forget we ever existed.
The whole damn arrangement, where, if we’re lucky, we exist for just enough time to figure out what we’re doing (kinda) before our existence is snuffed out completely, is so very cruel, unfair, and … inefficient. How are we supposed to hang on to any sort of institutional memory if everyone just keeps dying? Who came up with this stupid system?
As a Christian, I guess I’m supposed to have an answer to that question. But it doesn’t really help much, except to provide a focus for the anger and frustration. What the hell, God? What were you thinking? There’s so much shit to get done in this world and you give each of us a mere handful of years to do anything about it?
And while we’re at it, why IS there so much shit in this world to get done? So many diseases to cure. So much poverty to address. Figuring out how to protect ourselves from nature while also being careful not to destroy nature in the process. And, of course, none of us can agree on how to tackle these problems. Hell, we can’t even agree on what is and is not a problem. Really, I’m amazed it only took us thousands and thousands of years for us to get this far. What kind of god would create such a ridiculously screwed up existence?
The question of how a supposedly loving God could create such a fucked up world has been so much a thorn in the side of Christian theology over the centuries that it has its own name: theodicy – the attempt to justify God in the face of evil. But to me the whole endeavor of explaining the existence of evil seems quite hopeless for a religion that claims God is omnipotent. Whatever the explanation, the response will always be, “Pssh. Whatevs. If God really is all-powerful, God could’ve made it work.”
For instance, free will figures prominently in many, if not most, Christian discussions on theodicy. The running theory, generally, is that God wanted a creation that could choose to love God and “do right” of their own free will, and not mindlessly follow commands like programmed robots. If there’s no evil, no “wrong choice,” then we are compelled to make the right choice. With only one option, we have no free will.
This is all very reasonable and logical. But didn’t God create reason and logic? If so, then God’s not really subject to them, right? Or maybe God IS subject to the reason and logic God created because, after having made the rules, God has decided to play by them. But then why did God make reason and logic to operate they way they do in the first place? In the end, if God really had wanted us to exist in an evil-free universe, while at the same time possessing free will, God should have been able to make that happen, as impossible as that is for us mere mortals and our limited understanding to comprehend. It’s like that logic problem used to challenge theists who believe in an omnipotent God, the one that goes something like: If God is omnipotent, can God create a boulder so heavy that God can’t lift it? The Christian answer, I think, is “yes,” but God can also still lift the boulder. God simply isn’t bound by human logic.
So I just don’t think we can really explain the existence of evil with a mixture of theology and reason; not if we proclaim an omnipotent God. On the other hand, another aspect of an all-powerful, omnipresent creator is that this creator is not bound by time or space or dimensions or even timelines (Community and Flash fans know what I’m talking about). God occupies every bit of space in existence and knows everything that has ever happened and everything that will ever happen in our universe, and in any parallel universes that might exist. So while we can’t really see a purpose to evil with our very limited perspective on time and space, it’s quite possible that somewhere beyond our view, beyond our point in space and time (and dimension?), there is an explanation as to why our existence must be the way that it is, evil and all. I think we Christians more or less have to believe this is the case.
I know this sounds like a cop-out, like we’re letting God off the hook, but to me it makes a certain sort of sense. If there is really some sort of all-powerful, all-knowing being that created the entire universe and all the laws of science, do we really think we can somehow get in this being’s head and understand what motivated it to do all this creating, and why it created the universe the way it did?
OK, yeah, it still sounds like an all-too-convenient out to a very tough question. Sigh. I make for a very poor Christian apologist (as this post is making abundantly clear). On any given day, if one of my atheist or agnostic friends (I’m a gay man living on the east coast – most of my friends are atheist or agnostic) were to ask me, “Why should I believe?,” there’s probably a 50% chance I’d respond with “I don’t know, maybe you really shouldn’t, actually.” If the question is turned on me, as in “Why do you believe?,” the simple answer is that I just can’t fathom that all of this – humanity, earth, the universe, etc. – is merely an accident. I have this unwavering conviction that there’s a purpose to all this existence. Maybe it is just wishful thinking, but whatever the case, I honest-to-God (ha!) can’t shake it. I’m not claiming that deep down everyone feels this way, or that everyone even SHOULD feel this way, it’s just where I’m at, where I’ve always been, and I’m fairly certain where I’ll always be.
But believing that there’s some greater purpose to existence, and even an explanation for evil, is a far cry from knowing what that purpose or explanation is. I can live with the idea that some things, like the existence of evil, might just be permanently beyond our grasp. But it would be nice to have at least a peek, a preview, a clue as to why we’re here and where this is all going. We don’t get much from what we can see, even using a microscope or telescope. There’s not much in the observable universe that provides us with a sense of any ultimate, overarching purpose. And this is soul-crushingly frustrating. Once again, I find myself yelling at the heavens, “What the hell, God?” Give us something to keep us going, at least! Just a little taste of what we’re all here for.
And this, for me, is the very essence of Advent. A period of waiting, where we’re all crying out, desperate for some sort of clue to our existence. And in just a few more days, God provides an answer.
Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, KJV). I think this is the most amazing verse in the Bible. The idea that this all-powerful creator being came to us, as one of us, to personally deliver a message about what we’re all doing here, it’s either insane or beyond incredible.
And it wasn’t some horrid message like, “Grab onto as much power as you can for as long as you can.” The very circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth foreshadow a very different sort of missive. The message delivered to us by the Word made flesh is that God’s plan for existence isn’t based on power and control, but on love, compassion, and service. And that, ultimately, this plan will be completed. We don’t know how long it will take, or why the process of getting there has to be such a damn pain-in-the-ass struggle, but we do know that at some point, God’s going to finish making existence the way it’s supposed to be. And that, in the meantime, we can, rather we should and must, get a start on things. Progress may be slow, and in some years we might even backtrack a bit (I’m talking to you, 2016!), and each of us may not get as much done as we’d like, but we’re promised that the universe (multiverse?) will get there, no matter what we do to forward or impede progress. God will make sure it all happens.
And this is only half of the story. When Holy Week rolls around we get more – a message of healing for us personally and for all the horrible shit in the world generally, and how, no matter when our time here on earth is up, God’s bringing us all back to experience the finished product, to experience what all of this existing is leading up to.
But I’m getting ahead of things. Right now, in Advent, we cry out, we scream in frustration at the futility of existence. It is a time of [sometimes painful] reflection.
But very soon comes Christmas, when God hears all those agonizing screams and cries… and answers. Personally. In the flesh. With glad tidings of comfort and joy. Though right now, I just really need the comfort part. I need the part where we’re told that there’s a purpose to all this seemingly meaningless existing.
As the 41st Christmas in my term-limited time here on Earth approaches, at a time of my life where I’m beginning to realize how very little I, or any of us, are able to accomplish in our lifetimes, this is the comfort that Christmas brings to me. That what little I am able to do is not for naught, but part of something larger, part of a plan that will eventually be brought to fruition (even if I and everyone else fuck up sometimes, or a lot). When I find myself screaming into the seeming-void about why anything exists at all, I hear millions of Christians from over two millennia speaking back to me in calm and reassuring tones that there is a reason, there is a plan, a purpose, and you are a part of it – rest easy in that comforting message.